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For some, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But for others who manage to squeeze some gym time into their everyday routine, a pre-workout snack may be even more important. (Sorry, cereal mascots).
That’s why we tapped sports dietitian and exercise physiologist Bob Seebohar, MS, RDN, CSSD, CSCS, for intel on the right balance of macros and the best timing for snacks to keep you from getting hungry, maximize your performance, and keep you from bonking.
So, let’s dive right in… wait, we’re gonna go ask Seebohar if diving needs a pre-workout snack first. BRB.
It’s all about balance. Ideally, your pre-workout snack will have a nice balance of carbs, fat, and protein. Here’s why:
- Carbs. All carbs break down into sugar that your body can use for energy, called glucose. And having some waiting in the wings from a pre-workout snack may help you to feel more energetic or perform better. Examples of good carb sources for pre-workout noshing include whole-grain crackers, half a sweet potato, yogurt, fruit, or whole-grain toast.
- Protein. Protein — it’s what muscles are made of. Protein in food is made from amino acids, and your body also uses amino acids to build new proteins (for example, muscle tissue). Protein can also keep you a bit more full because it takes your body longer to digest than carbs. Good pre-workout protein sources may include Greek yogurt, protein powder, egg whites, nuts and seeds, nut butter, or leftover grilled chicken from last night’s dinner.
- Fat. If you’re on keto, your body can use dietary fat for energy by converting it into ketones — so you can skip the pre-workout carb. Good fat sources include avocado, egg yolks, nuts and seeds, nut butter, or full-fat dairy (like yogurt or cottage cheese).
The body builds muscle and recovers 24/7, not just at the gym. Smartly timed snacks can give the body the fuel it needs to build muscle, burn fat, and recover as best it can. Here are some general timing tips:
- If you prefer to eat before exercising or if your workout will last longer than an hour: Seebohar suggests grabbing a snack about 45 to 60 minutes in advance.
- If you want to gain serious muscle: Some research suggests that a high protein snack right before you work out may be equally as effective at promoting muscle growth as a post-workout high protein snack. So, if your goal is muscle growth, you may prefer to have a protein-rich snack right before starting.
- If you’re going to be doing a long, endurance activity (like a half marathon or marathon): You’re gonna want to focus more on carbs — and you may want to start upping your carb intake as early as 48 hours before your event begins.
If you’re not entirely clear on what and when to eat for the kind of exercise you do, it’s a really good idea to get in touch with a CSSD (Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics), like Seebohar, for some tailored advice.
While everyone’s nutritional requirements and preferences are different depending on their goals and activities, you actually don’t need to eat much to work out for 60 minutes or less, says Seebohar, so keep these in mind for your longer sweat sessions.
But if you’re gonna be hittin’ it pretty hard, he suggests a small snack — like a palm-sized serving of carbs, a half-palm of protein, or a quarter-palm of fat. And yes, we mean the palm on your hand, not the tree — although who among us hasn’t wanted to eat a palm tree-sized serving of carbs before?
Oops. Did you just check your watch and realize that you don’t have time to wait a full 45 to 60 minutes after snacking to start your workout? No worries. Here are three light (but v. balanced) snacks, that won’t sit in your stomach like a brick:
This light but luxurious parfait isn’t a huge portion, but it packs in plenty of fresh strawberries — along with a little bit of yogurt and cottage cheese, and a sprinkle of nuts for staying power. It also contains half a cup of whole-grain cereal per serving for an extra little carb boost.
The classic apple-and-peanut-butter combo gets an upgrade with raisins and chia seeds. If you’re in a rush, skip the extras and just grab an apple with PB. Try stashing some to-go packs of peanut or almond butter in your gym bag so you can chow down on your way to indoor cycling class.
Short on time? Stock up on some store-bought bars with high quality ingredients and a 1:1 or 2:1 carb-to-protein ratio (as in, look for 10 to 20 grams of carbs and 10 grams of protein), Seebohar says. One of our favorites is RXBAR, which lists ingredients right on the front of the wrapper.
Going for gains? These snacks deliver a quick dose of protein for optimal muscle growth.
Omelets are one of our favorite any-time-of-day meals. You can load them up with tons of your favorite veggies and — since you’re working out — splurge with full fat cheese. This baked style makes it easy to portion out snack sizes, or you can make them in a muffin pan. (It also contains 21 grams of protein in a serving, making it perfect muscle fuel.)
We love smoothies, but first — coffee. This recipe combines both. It’s perfect for an early-morning workout since the hit of caffeine will perk you up before you hit the gym. And with a scoop (or 2) of your fave protein powder, it will flood your body with what it needs to make new muscle.
These carb-rich snacks provide easy-to-digest carbs for energy, but are still balanced.
Avocado toast never fails. When you have a heartier appetite, try this pre-workout version and add a hard-boiled (or fried) egg on top for added protein. There are a lot of ways to get fancy here, but we’re big fans of this classic combo before a morning run.
Oats are a classic morning staple, but if you don’t want to clean up a pot before heading to the gym in the morning, try this one as an afternoon snack. The recipe serves two, but we suggest dividing it into three portions and refrigerating the extras for smaller snack-size servings.
For weight loss, you’ll want a protein-rich snack (to help keep you full and satisfied) that’s still fairly low in calories. Here are a few.
If you’re gluten-free or just not big on toast, this is a great way to get your nut-butter snack in while adding healthy carbs to power you through. Plus, rice cakes don’t go stale as quickly as bread, so you can always keep a pack on hand in your pantry. Additionally, this balanced snack clocks in at just under 140 calories.
Whip up this chicken salad for a snack, stuff it in half a pita pocket, and then use the remainder for lunch or dinner. To keep the calories under 150, wrap up your pre-workout serving in a large lettuce leaf instead of pita.
Avocados are good. Avocados stuffed with the makings of a BLT are even better — and utilize some of the most drool-worthy keto-friendly ingredients. Use full fat Greek yogurt in place of mayo if you want a little extra protein boost.
A wrap may sound like a meal, but this mini version is the perfect size for a pre-workout bite. The gluten-free “wrap” is actually just turkey wrapped around some avocado with shredded carrot for added crunch. It’s the perfect use-what-you-already-have-in-your-fridge kind of snack and super low in carbs to boot.
Here are some low/no-prep snacks for workouts on the go.
PB and banana is the perfect on-the-go snack. For a longer workout, spread both on one slice of whole-wheat toast and add a sprinkle of chia seeds for a pop of extra nutrition and crunch. It comes together super-quick if you’re in a rush, but we don’t recommend running around with a piece of toast hanging out your mouth like an anime character — you might lose some banana.
Make these no-bake peanut butter balls ahead of time, and you’ll have some healthy treats ready to fuel a week’s worth of sweat sessions. Seem like too much effort? Grab your favorite bars (we love CLIF Bar’s nut butter-filled ones), cut in thirds, and then roll them into balls for smaller bites.
Here are some other things you may want to be mindful of before you get your workout on.
There are near-endless amounts of supplements that are marketed for pre-workout use. The difference between these and a snack is that these supplements — while they may contain certain ingredients that may boost your performance or assist with muscle growth or recovery — don’t provide a significant amount of calories like food does.
For that reason, they shouldn’t be used as a replacement for a pre-workout snack. With one major exception — protein powder! It provides calories from protein and can be used as a snack but is considered a dietary supplement rather than a food.
Here are a few other types of supplements you may encounter on the regs:
- Creatine. Creatine is a type of amino acid that may help improve your exercise performance by making it possible for your body to produce energy more quickly. It’s a popular supplement with lots of scientific research to support its use.
- BCAAs. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) may help to promote muscle growth, but research shows that they may not be any more effective than other types of protein supplements.
- Caffeine. Caffeine — of coffee fame — can provide some small but significant improvements to exercise performance. Some pre-workout supplements have caffeine in them.
- Nitric oxide boosters. Nitric oxide is a gas that your cells produce that helps to dilate your blood vessels, allowing for increased blood flow. Better blood flow can improve your performance, so many athletes utilize nitric oxide “boosters” like beetroot or the amino acid citrulline.
- Pre-workout. Pre-workout supplements can contain any or all of the above ingredients, but the key ingredient in these products is usually caffeine. They help to provide a surge of alertness right before you go hard at the gym, and may help improve your performance too.
It’s important that you don’t go into a workout dehydrated, so the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you consume 5 to 10 milliliters of fluid per kg of body weight (or 2 to 4 milliliters per pound of body weight) in the 2 to 4 hours leading up to your workout.
This works out to about 10 to 20 ounces over 2 to 4 hours for a 150-pound person — not enough to make you feel sloshing in your belly, but enough to keep you from starting a workout in a dehydrated state. Your pee should be pale yellow.
If you’re gonna be outside on a hot day or doing a particularly intense workout, a pre-workout snack with some salt in it may help your body to retain fluid also — which can be helpful for staving off dehydration.
Is it good to have a pre-workout snack?
That depends. According to Seebohar, you really don’t need one unless you’re going to be working out for 60 minutes or longer. But it’s totally up to you! If you’re hungry, it may be a good idea to have a little snack before working out so that you’re not distracted.
What is the best snack to eat before a workout?
That depends on what your workout goals are. If you want to build muscle, you should eat a high protein snack right before your workout (or right after) — but if your goal is to fuel yourself for a long endurance workout you’ll want a more carb-rich snack.
What should I eat 30 minutes before a workout?
Something fairly light and small, that contains a healthy balance of protein, fat, and carbs. A handful of nuts or a small protein smoothie are great choices.
Is it OK to work out on an empty stomach?
If you’re not hungry to the point of distraction or doing a long, super-intense workout, yes! While fasted exercise may not help you lose more body fat than exercising after eating, it’s okay to work out on an empty stomach (and some people even prefer it!).
What should I not eat before a workout?
Anything that will make you feel gross, TBH. Large meals (even large salads), rich fatty foods like fried chicken or lasagna, huge quantities of fluid… all of these can leave you feeling weighed down and exhausted before you even start moving.
To eat or not to eat? That is the (first) question. If you’re gonna be working out for longer than 60 minutes, the answer is yes. Be sure to include a balance of protein, fat, and carbs, but consider your goals too — carb up for a long run and pound the protein for muscle growth. Remember to drink a glass or two of water in the hours leading up to your workout too.
Questions? Consult a CSSD for individualized advice on how to fuel your workouts.